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  • Erika Fisher

The Asian Experience in White America

As a person of color, it has been an extremely difficult time with rushes of varying emotions. Christian Cooper. George Floyd. As events unfolded, a friend and I spoke generally about racism in America, and I mentioned hate crimes against Asians due to COVID-19—the Brooklyn woman who had acid thrown on her, for example. My friend, whom I might add, is a highly educated, white American female, said, “It’s a shame this is happening now, when Asians have such a positive history in America.” I paused. The words model minority popped into my mind, followed by the disappointing realization that here was another person who wasn’t at all familiar with the Asian-American story. 

I can’t blame her too harshly, though. The long-standing institutional racism endured by Asians in America, particularly Chinese-Americans, is not a well-known story, even among other groups of racial and ethnic minorities. In a 2016 article, African American writer Brando Simeo Starkey wrote, “[Even] people like me who care deeply about racial justice—we often fail at positioning the grievances of Asian-Americans against white supremacy at the heart of the fight.”

Yes—it does feel like the Asian-American story is written in sand, continually washed over and buried again and again. So, today, I’ll tell the story one more time, as well as answer the question you may be wondering right now: Why is it always forgotten?

The History of Asians in America

Large groups of Asians from China and Hong Kong first came to America in the mid-1800s, lured by the Gold Rush. However, fortune was rare, and most became laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad, which, by the government’s own admission, could not have been completed without the huge numbers of Chinese manpower. But, the Chinese were given the most dangerous jobs, subjected to physical and verbal abuse, and were paid a fraction of the salaries of their white counterparts. Cheap Chinese labor gave rise to “anti-coolie clubs,” which were essentially white unions that sought to protect the rights of white workers and maintain clear boundaries between the races. In 1862, these clubs successfully lobbied for a tax on Chinese labor, which became the Anti-Coolie Act.

Working class whites continued to rally against Asian workers and their families, which, by this time, included immigrants from South, Central, and East Asia. Not only did whites perceive Asians as economic threats, but they also viewed them as cultural threats. Asians spoke differently, dressed differently, and were not easily converted to Christianity. As such, Asians were very much the target of social discrimination, and many died at the hands of angry lynch mobs. The worst such example is the Chinese Massacre of 1871, where 500 rioters hanged 15 Chinese men, shot three, and ransacked Chinese homes. Some historians cite this as the largest mass lynching in America’s history. Afterward, eight white men were convicted of manslaughter, but later the convictions were overthrown on legal technicalities—a phenomenon we’re still too familiar with today.

Xenophobia fueled anti-Asian propaganda, and the exploitation of Asian workers continued. In the late 1800s, after the end of the Civil War, southern plantation owners replaced their freed black slaves with Chinese and Indian workers, yet the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred them from US citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first and only American law to exclude an entire group based on race. 

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Asian people continued to move from the West to the East Coast and discrimination followed. All over America, Asian-American families lived in segregated neighborhoods. Many school boards, particularly in California, forced Asian children to attend segregated schools. Then came World War II.

In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, nearly 120,000 Japanese people—most of whom were US residents but also included Japanese from Canada, Mexico, and South America—were forced into internment camps. Quite ironically, as U.S. troops fought against Hitler, the Japanese in America were sharing some experiences with the Jews in Europe. A concise summary on reads, “The FBI rounded-up 1,291 Japanese and religious leaders, arresting them without evidence and freezing their assets.” Then, “In Lordsburg, New Mexico, internees were delivered by trains and marched two miles at night to the camp.” Internees included men, women, children, the elderly, and the disabled, whether one was fully ethnically Japanese, or merely a 16th Japanese, however that was determined.

After World War II, things began to change for a number of reasons. There was a sense of appreciation for the tens of thousands of Asian people who fought with the US military during the war, and large groups of Southeast Asians were resettled in America. Immigration laws that prohibited or restricted various Asian ethnicities were dismantled, the last of which in the 1950s. But, it wasn’t simply shifting times that prompted a change in attitude towards Asian-Americans. The U.S. as a whole was changing rapidly, and white America turned its attention to other perceived threats.

Model Minority: A Tool of White Oppression

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement fueled social and political tensions. White America looked for ways to maintain the status quo and, although not necessarily intentional, a “divide and conquer” mindset was born. White academics heralded Asians as the model minority—a term that was quickly picked up by the media and politicians alike. A popular quote from US News & World Report in 1966 read: “At a time when Americans are awash in worry over the plight of racial minorities, one such minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work…not a welfare check.” Other analyses pointed to the Asian community’s full trust in government to make the best decisions for American society. Essentially, Asians were lauded for “working hard,” keeping their heads down, and doing what they were told to do. 

The implication for African Americans was: “If they can do it, why can’t you?” Suddenly, Asian-Americans were not the enemy, but a fine example of assimilation, upward mobility, and patriotism. White Americans flipped the narrative when it suited them to do so. In contempt for the African American community, and again, using its influence over government, education, and culture, white supremacy altered collective memories and attitudes.

Power in Numbers

It’s incredibly important to me that the Asian-American story is shared accurately and often—not simply because I’m an Asian-American woman, but because our story helps to provide a fuller picture of white supremacy in America. Whether Asian, black, brown, Native American, Muslim, or Latino, we each have a history. While the specific ways and means have differed, we all share the overarching experience of exploitation, oppression, violence, and institutional racism in America. Our collective stories are even more powerful than our single stories alone.




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